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Aiesha S. Robinson v. Eric L. Leonard

May 11, 2011


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Mercer County, Docket No. FD-11-003297-92.

Per curiam.


Submitted November 9, 2010

Before Judges Yannotti and Espinosa.

It is undisputed that defendant received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits from January 1, 1988, through December 1, 1996, and is currently receiving SSI benefits. He has no current support obligation but has accumulated arrears. Defendant appeals from the denial of his motion for reconsideration of an order that denied his request to retroactively modify his child support obligation. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand.

Aiesha Robinson is the mother of defendant's son, E.R., born September 14, 1990. Although she is the nominal plaintiff, an action for child support was brought by the Mercer County Board of Social Services (MCBSS) in 1992 because Robinson was receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). A child support order was entered in August 1992 that required defendant to pay $87.00 per week. Defendant did not appear at the hearing that resulted in this order. As a result, the fact that defendant was receiving SSI benefits was not presented to the court at the time support was ordered. Defendant did not appeal from the order. During the period from 1992 to 2002, he did not file a motion to vacate the order based upon the fact that his only income was derived from the SSI benefits.

Defendant was incarcerated from September 7, 1995, to August 31, 2004. He filed a motion to suspend arrears and child support payments during his incarceration and was granted that relief by order dated April 15, 2002, for the period from September 8, 2000, until his release.

Because Robinson received TANF prior to 1994 and for the period from September 7, 1995, to August 31, 2004, all the arrears for those periods are assigned to MCBSS. By order dated June 28, 2002, defendant's arrears were modified to reflect only those arrears due to MCBSS, arrears were fixed at $22,707 and reduced to judgment. As a result of a court-ordered audit of his child support account, defendant's arrears were amended in July 2009 to $14,744.22 to deduct $8,352 charged to defendant while he was incarcerated.

After his release, defendant applied for SSI benefits. The Social Security Administration found him "disabled as of December 18, 2007 because of psychiatric conditions so severe that [he is] unable to perform any work existing in significant numbers in the national economy." It is undisputed that SSI benefits have been his sole source of income since that determination was made. This fact has a critical impact upon any effort to collect defendant's arrears because "[b]enefits received through the SSI program are exempt from attachment, garnishment, levy, execution or any other legal process. 42 U.S.C.A. § 407(a); 20 C.F.R. § 581.104 . . . [and] cannot be garnished or attached for child support. . . . 42 U.S.C.A. § 659(a)." Burns v. Edwards, 367 N.J. Super. 29, 39 (App. Div. 2004).

In September 2009, defendant filed a motion to "vacate order entered while receiving (S.S.I.) and to [r]eceive credit for money paid based on receipts provided." The statement he submitted in support of this motion clarifies that defendant sought to vacate the order entered seventeen years earlier, in 1992. His motion was denied.

Defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration, which was denied by order dated October 16, 2009, with the following explanation: "The Defendant's request to modify arrears is denied as the Court cannot retroactively modify child support." The order does not reflect consideration of the fact that, because defendant was receiving SSI benefits, collection of the arrears required the invasion of funds which are "exempt from attachment, garnishment, levy or execution." See 42 U.S.C.A. § 407(a); Burns, supra, 367 N.J. Super. at 39, 45.

On appeal, defendant argues he should have been granted the relief requested because the execution of $87.00 weekly during the time he was receiving SSI benefits was contrary to 42 U.S.C.A. § 407(a). In opposition, MCBSS argues that defendant's request for retroactive modification of his support order is prohibited by N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23a, which states in pertinent part:

No payment or installment of an order for child support, or those portions of an order which are allocated for child support established prior to or subsequent to the effective date of P.L.1993, c.45 (C.2A:17-56.23a), shall be retroactively modified by the court except with respect to the period during which there is a pending application for modification, but only from the date the notice of motion was mailed either directly or through the appropriate agent.

In reviewing a decision of a family court, we "defer to the factual findings of the trial court," New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. E.P., 196 N.J. 88, 104 (2008), in recognition of the "family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters . . . ." New Jersey Div. of Youth and Family Servs. v. M.C. III, 201 N.J. 328, 343 (2010); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998). However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from ...

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